This afternoon Labour MP Michael Meacher obtained an adjournment debate (limited to 30 minutes) to raise the fact that DWP Minister Mark Hoban had refused to meet with himself, fellow Labour MP Tom Greatrex and Sue Marsh (@suey2y) and Kaliya Franklin (@bendygirl) of the disabled people’s group Spartacus to discuss the Work Capability Assessment, the reasons for which he details in his blog here.
The debate descended into farce when it became apparent that of the seven or so MPs in the chamber, Mark Hoban wasn’t one of them, having apparently been delayed at the airport, with DWP Minister Esther McVey, the Minister for Disabled People, deputised in his place.
Michael Meacher opened the debate by explaining the background to his request for a meeting was the ongoing issue of Atos and the Work Capability Assessment, and that in his 40 years of parliamentary experience it was unprecedented for a minister to refuse point blank to meet with a delegation of people directly affected by parliamentary measures. He said that the recent debate on Atos and the WCA was one of the best he had ever experienced with no cross-party rancour, just cross-party condemnation of Atos, and no defence of DWP.
This was the reason he had sought a meeting with the Minister. He had waited five weeks for a reply, and ultimately had to submit a Parliamentary Question in order to force a response, a response which he described as parliamentary language for a flat ‘no’. He then approached Hoban in the lobby, only to be told 'I'm not seeing you', a statement repeated another three times, and then was told 'I'm not seeing Spartacus', again repeated three times.
Meacher then went on to explain how Spartacus is a loose collective of thousands of disabled people whose initial, evidence-based report showed how DWP had systematically misled the public on the degree of support for disability benefit cuts. As he pointed out, the Spartacus Report had trended spectacularly on Twitter on the day of its release and had since gone on to be referenced in the House, and by several other governmental committees. He noted that Spartacus have gone on to produce other evidence-based reports and that DWP ministers have repeatedly met with Spartacus members Sue Marsh and Kaliya Franklin, at the Conservative Party Conference, at other events, and have regularly debated with them on the BBC.
He conclude by noting that he could not understand why Mark Hoban was refusing to engage, noting that Spartacus planned to move for the immediate implementation of all reforms from the DWP-sponsored Harrington reviews to the WCA, noting that trials have shown that while full implementation of Harrington will reduce the number of assessments an Atos ‘Health Care Professional’ can carry out daily, from around 11 down to 4 to 5, the result is near 100% accuracy. (Current WCA rates show around 1 assessment in 6 overturned at appeal).
Meacher concluded that he could leave out Spartacus from the delegation but he refused to do so because he does not believe ministers can pick and choose. He said that the minister was free to persist with his intransigence, but he would not back down because hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people have been subjected to real hardship and fear.
Esther McVey opened the Coalition’s response by explaining that Mark Hoban’s plane from
had suffered engine failure and been forced to turn back. She then tried to
blame Michael Meacher for Hoban’s failure to appear, saying the government would
have been willing to reschedule, glossing over the fact that Michael Meacher
would have been unlikely to obtain another position in the parliamentary
schedule for the debate. Scotland
McVey then listed a score of charities, and companies operating in the welfare industry, who Mark Hoban had met with. It was immediately obvious that none of these are Disabled People’s User Led Organisations, but unfortunately this is not the first time that Mcvey has appeared not to understand the difference between a disability charity and a DPULO, nor to be aware of ‘Nothing for us, without us.’
McVey then emphasized that ‘We are keen to maintain a constructive dialogue to improve the work capability assessment.’ This was a very specific choice of words for which the reason would later become clear.
Michael Meacher then secured an intervention to repeat his question, as McVey apparently had no intention of getting to an answer any time soon. In fact it was becoming rapidly apparent that McVey’s primary intent was to run down the clock on the debate, and with only 30 minutes allocated there wasn’t a great deal of clock she needed to run down.
McVey then launched into a prolonged explanation of how Labour were to blame for the WCA (which both disabled people and MPs are well aware of), and how the Coalition have improved the WCA (which disabled people would dispute). She was again challenged to get to the answer, and after a further batch of playground politics – “They did it, Miss” – which she categorized as ‘essential context’ finally touched on something almost related to the issue.
This wasn’t to actually answer the question, of course, now she denied that the DWP ministerial office had failed to answer Michael Meacher within the required 20 working days. Michael Meacher responded by holding up the letter in question and reading out the dates, which were indeed more than 20 working days apart. McVey tried to claim that this was not the case, but then appeared to realise the futility of trying to shout down a man actually holding the evidence to prove her false.
With around 25 minutes of the debate gone, McVey then finally got to the point of her answer. That Mark Hoban would not meet with Spartacus, because Spartacus were unwilling to be reasonable. And DWP’s evidence for this was the language used in part of the foreword to the Spartacus produced 'People's Review of the WCA' (i.e. one paragraph in a one hundred page report). She seemed to be a little confused over what Spartacus had actually said, so for accuracy here is the original paragraph from the foreword:
"The WCA is a statement of political desperation. The process is reminiscent of the medical tribunals that returned shell shocked and badly wounded soldiers to duty in the first world war or the ‘KV-machine’, the medical commission the Nazis used in the second world war to play down wounds so that soldiers could be reclassified ‘fit for the Eastern front"
That quote was not by either Sue Marsh or Kaliya Franklin, the two Spartacus representatives who Mark Hoban had been asked to meet with, nor by any of the principal authors of the Spartacus reports, but was in fact by the author of the foreword to the People's Review, Professor Peter Beresford OBE, BA Hons, PhD, AcSS, FRSA Dip WP Professor of Social Policy Brunel University.
McVey then tried to mousetrap Michael Meacher by insisting that surely he would join her in condemning Spartacus for such outrageous language, making it clear that this would be a prerequisite for any meeting. With her careful eye on the clock McVey then sat, leaving Michael Meacher with little chance to say more than the parliamentary equivalent of “What?!” before the debate reached its deadline and the House rose, but it would be fair to say that the disabled twittersphere (which had either been watching the live web feed or following the people like me who were live tweeting it) exploded in outrage.
What makes McVey’s claims about Spartacus being unreasonable so utterly ludicrous was that the debate was chaired by the Deputy Speaker, Nigel Evans MP, and Kaliya Franklin, one of the two Spartacus representatives in question, had spent the previous week working in the Deputy Speaker’s office as a form of political work-experience, an internship arranged by none other than Minister of Work and Pensions Ian Duncan Smith (Hoban and McVey’s boss) and in part by Esther McVey herself.
As Kaliya noted on Twitter: “Oo yes, I do believe I've also found the email's to Mark Hoban's secretary where I politely request a constructive meeting on #wca” and “ Hmm. I've just found an email I sent to Esther McVey in October 2012 where I made several constructive suggestions re #wca”
Clearly utterly unreasonable….